Discovery of 5km path of wreckage confirms jet crashed into Atlantic

BRAZILIAN Defence Minister Nelson Jobim said last night a 5-kilometre path of wreckage found in the Atlantic is confirmation that an Air France jet that carried 228 people crashed in the ocean.

Mr Jobim said discovery of the debris by Brazilian military pilots “confirms that the plane went down in that area” hundreds of kilometres from the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha.

He said the strip of wreckage included metallic and non-metallic pieces, but did not describe them in detail. No bodies were spotted in the crash of the Airbus in which all aboard are believed to have died.

The discovery came just hours after authorities announced they had found an aeroplane seat, an orange buoy and signs of fuel in a part of the Atlantic Ocean with depths of up to three miles.

Brazil’s navy said three commercial ships in the area were joining the search and France said it would send a ship capable of deep-water exploration.

The pilots spotted two areas of floating debris – but no signs of life – about 60km apart, about 650km beyond the Brazilian archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, near Flight 447’s path from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, said Brazilian Air Force spokesman, Jorge Amaral.

“The locations where the objects were found are toward the right of the point where the last signal of the plane was emitted,” Mr Amaral said.

“That suggests that it might have tried to make a turn, maybe to return to Fernando de Noronha, but that is just a hypothesis.”

Two commercial ships that joined the search yesterday morning reached sites where the debris was found, said a navy spokeswoman. They were searching for the items spotted by the plane, while the third was still en route.

A US Navy P-3 surveillance plane arrived in Brazil yesterday morning to help if needed.

The French minister overseeing transportation, Jean-Louis Borloo, has dispatched to the debris site a research ship that can deploy unmanned submarines to explore depths of up to 6,000m.

The discovery of debris came more than 24 hours after the jet went missing, with all feared dead.

Pilots flying a commercial jet from Paris to Rio de Janeiro for Brazil’s largest airline, TAM, said they saw what they thought was fire in the ocean along the Air France plane’s route early yesterday.

Mr Amaral said: “There is information that the pilot of a TAM aircraft saw several orange points on the ocean while flying over the region... where the Air France plane disappeared. After arriving in Brazil, the pilot found out about the disappearance (of the Air France plane) and said that he thought those points on the ocean were fire.”

Rescuers were still scanning a vast sweep of ocean extending from far off north-eastern Brazil to waters off West Africa. The four-year-old plane was last heard from on Monday.

If no survivors are found, it would be the world’s worst civil aviation disaster since the November 2001 crash of an American Airlines jetliner in the New York City borough of Queens that killed 265 people.

Investigators on both sides of the ocean are trying to determine what brought the Airbus A330 down. Potential causes could include violently shifting winds and hail from towering thunderheads, lightning or some combination of other factors.

The crew gave no verbal messages of distress before the crash, but the plane’s system sent an automatic message just before it disappeared, reporting lost pressure and electrical failure.

The plane’s cockpit and “black box” recorders could be thousands of metres below the surface.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said: “We are in a race against the clock in extremely difficult weather conditions and in a zone where depths reach up to 7,000m.”

Black box recorders can emit signals for up to 30 days.

The chance of finding survivors now “is very, very small, even non-existent,” said Mr Borloo, who called the A330 “one of the most reliable planes in the world” and said lightning alone, even from a fierce tropical storm, probably couldn’t have brought down the aircraft.

“There really had to be a succession of extraordinary events to be able to explain this situation,” Mr Borloo said on RTL radio yesterday.

French police were studying passenger lists and maintenance records, and preparing to take DNA from passengers’ relatives to help identify any bodies.

France’s Defence Minister Herve Morin said “we have no signs so far” of terrorism, but all hypotheses must be studied.

The Airbus A330-200 was cruising normally at 10,670m and 840km/h just before it disappeared nearly four hours into the flight.

No trouble was reported as the plane left radar contact beyond the Fernando de Noronha archipelago. But just north of the equator, a line of towering thunderstorms loomed.

Bands of extremely turbulent weather stretched across the Atlantic toward Africa.

France’s junior minister for transport, Dominique Bussereau, said the plane sent “a kind of outburst” of automated messages just before it disappeared.

Mr Bussereau said that this “means something serious happened, as eventually the circuits switched off”.

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